Syria future in the balance

Syria remains a focus of global and regional tensions as the government of President Bashar Assad, supported by its Russian ally, further asserts its control over the war-torn country. Attention has now turned to Idlib province in the north-west, which is the last significant area of the country occupied by jihadist rebel forces. Many of the armed groups in Idlib have close connections to Turkey, which also has its own military occupying parts of north-western Syria. More than three million people remain in Idlib province and in early September imperialist leaders and their media whipped up a familiar hysteria about an impending massacre of civilians by the Syrian and Russian militaries. The US threatened intervention once again over supposed evidence that Syria was planning to use chemical weapons. However, a deal agreed by Russia and Turkey has averted the threat of an escalation for now, and made clear which countries currently hold the balance of power in Syria.

Idlib province shares a border with Turkey and has long been a stronghold of anti-government rebels, particularly jihadist fighters aligned to Al Qaeda. Turkey has used Idlib as an entry point to supply the rebel fighters it has supported in its campaign to overthrow Assad. Of the three million people in Idlib province, around a third of these have been displaced from other areas of Syria by fighting. As the Syrian army and its allies recaptured rebel territory elsewhere in the country, deals were struck to transfer rebel fighters and their families to Idlib. 60,000 opposition fighters are in Idlib, including at least 10,000 from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) – the latest incarnation of the Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra. To the north of Idlib is the area of Syria occupied by Turkey since 2016 in the ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation to undermine Kurdish-led expansion. The rest of the northern border of Syria is Kurdish autonomous territory.

Having failed to overthrow the Syrian government through years of covert war, supporting, arming and directing rebel groups, the major imperialist powers and their subservient media attempted to whip up a frenzy over Idlib throughout September. Following the pattern of earlier government assaults on Aleppo, Ghouta and elsewhere, headlines screamed of an impending massacre and refugee crisis in Idlib. US President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton said that the US, Britain and France would offer a ‘much stronger response’ than the previous airstrikes in April 2018 if Syria used chemical weapons in Idlib. Britain claimed that a chemical attack was a ‘credible threat’ (The Guardian 10 September). However, veteran reporter Robert Fisk was sceptical that Syria and Russia had any imminent plans for a major offensive in Idlib (Independent 10 September).

In the first week of September, amidst the hysteria about Idlib, Russia sent a clear signal to the NATO powers, by holding naval exercises in the eastern Mediterranean off Syria. 25 ships and 30 planes participated in anti-air and anti-submarine defence manoeuvres. Separately, from 11 September, Russia held its largest military exercises since 1982. 300,000 Russian soldiers took part, along with soldiers from China and Mongolia. A Russian statement about the exercises cited a global situation which is ‘frequently aggressive and unfriendly toward us’ (New York Times 28 August). NATO was invited to send observers. US marines held smaller scale exercises close to their base in Al Tanf in south-eastern Syria. These tensions were ratcheted up further on 15 September by Israeli airstrikes on warehouses close to Damascus. Israel has struck within Syria hundreds of times since the war began in 2011.

For several years Russia has been leading diplomatic efforts to bring about an end to the war in Syria. The US has been increasingly excluded from these negotiations. On 17 September a ceasefire deal was agreed at Sochi between Russia and Turkey to prevent a wholesale assault on Idlib. Turkey’s role in the agreement, without the involvement of other NATO powers, points towards the increasing irrelevance of this once supremely powerful body. The agreement involves the establishment of 15-20km deep buffer zones around Idlib between the Syrian army and rebel forces. All heavy weapons must be withdrawn from this zone by 10 October, and all rebel groups defined as ‘radical’ by the agreement, notably HTS, must also withdraw by 15 October. Joint Russian and Turkish military patrols will monitor the agreement.

Whether the agreement will last remains to be seen, and what is crucial is the response of HTS. Huras Al Din – a smaller jihadist group – refused to comply with the agreement on 23 September and encouraged other groups to do the same. This will mean that fighting in the buffer zone is inevitable, giving the major imperialists a pretext to claim that the ceasefire is not being respected by Syria and Russia. Turkey has extensively supported armed groups in Idlib and is only now making a show of distinguishing the ‘radical’ groups from the ‘moderates’. Much of this is through persuading HTS members to join the groups Turkey will continue to fund. Turkish President Erdogan absurdly claimed after the ceasefire was agreed that it is the Kurdish fighters in the north who are the main threat for Syria’s future. The Syrian government still insists that it will retake Idlib, although sees this as a longer term objective, recognising both the military challenge an assault on the province would pose, and the regional and global tensions it could exacerbate.

Just hours after the Sochi ceasefire was announced, Israel launched further airstrikes in Syria. Jets repeatedly struck Syrian bases in Latakia, which Israel claims were holding weapons for Syria’s ally Hezbollah. Syria responded to this with anti-aircraft missiles which accidently shot down a Russian military plane, killing 15. Russia blamed Israel, explaining that only one minute warning was given to Russia about the planned strikes. Israel predictably blamed Syria and Hezbollah. This incident led to Russia announcing that it would resume a deal to provide Syria with S300 anti-aircraft missiles to improve their defences and make Israeli strikes more difficult. This had been put on hold in 2013 at Israel’s insistence. Bolton called this a ‘major mistake’ and a ‘big escalation’.

The war in Syria is no longer an existential threat to the Syrian state and the country is starting to rebuild. However, Syria remains a hub of tension between global and regional powers. Bolton has insisted that the US will not remove its soldiers from Syria until Iranian troops and all their proxies – meaning Hezbollah – withdraw. The US, Britain and France continue to assert that there must be regime change in Syria, although their military efforts to achieve this have been significantly downgraded. For the time being it will be Turkey, Israel and crucially Russia, which will determine Syria’s future.

Toby Harbertson

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 266 October/November 2018


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